The eyes of the entire Middle East will be on Baghdad on August 28, as the Iraqi capital is set to host an extensive summit involving most of the major players in the region, to discuss crucial issues. The event, which was originally intended to bring together Iraq’s neighbors, has been expanded to include other influential countries not adjacent to Iraq.
Baghdad announced that Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait were invited, which are neighboring countries of Iraq. Additionally, officials from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt will be in attendance, as well as representatives from the United States, Russia, China, the UK, and France. In fact, France played a significant role in encouraging Iraq to hold the summit, with the US’ green light.
While the Iraqi presidency announced that the French President Emmanuel Macron has confirmed his attendance, Saudi Arabia is waiting to know the nature of Iranian and Turkish representation at the summit before its Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, decides whether to personally attend or not. This also applies to the UAE and Qatar. According to the latest information, the US State Department will send a delegation.
The hierarchical level of the country’s representatives will play a role in determining the summit’s relevance, but there is no doubt that the event constitutes an unprecedented achievement for Iraq, whose Prime Minister aspires to establish the country’s importance for multilateral dialogue on regional issues. The conference constitutes a remarkable occasion for the whole Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, as conflicting axes will gather around the same table to discuss their differences and perhaps give impetus to negotiations on the crises in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
An Absent Syria at the Core of Discussions
Though Syria is one of Iraq’s immediate neighbors, the French government placed a veto on the participation of President Bashar al Assad. This stance went counter to the desires of Iraqi actors affiliated with Iran, such as the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, who were adamant about including Syria as part of the participant countries. The Iraqi government eventually decided to support the French stance, as a Syrian attendance would have undermined chances of holding the summit.
This became the subject of an internal Iraqi dispute, which almost exploded with reports circulating that the head of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Falah al-Fayyad, had handed the Syrian President an invitation to participate without authorization from the government. The Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a sharp statement that this invitation was null and void as it did not represent the Iraqi State. Subsequently, Al Fayyad responded to the accusation by claiming that the letter contained “the reasons why Syria was not invited” to the summit.
France and other invited countries – such as Turkey and Qatar – do not recognize the legitimacy of the Assad regime.
France and other invited countries – such as Turkey and Qatar – do not recognize the legitimacy of the Assad regime. Despite secret Syrian-Saudi negotiations recently being held in Riyadh and Damascus, and the UAE’s diplomatic openness to Damascus, Syria remains outside the Arab League. Thus, it was unlikely that regional and international powers would suddenly grant President Bashar al Assad such legitimacy and public exposure by inviting him to the summit.
Despite Assad’s absence, the Syrian file will be one of the main issues on the Baghdad summit agenda. Indeed, the Syrian crisis remains one of the most prominent and contentious matters in the region, and ten years after the outbreak of protests against Bashar al-Assad – which led to the devastating civil war – the domestic situation remains in a stalemate. Yet, assuming that the Baghdad summit will be the gateway to an agreement on the Syrian file is unrealistic, as the crisis overlaps with other ongoing regional and international conflicts.
Some observers even suggested that discussing the Syrian file with the Iranian leadership during the Baghdad summit, will reveal the intention of certain countries to separate it from Russia. Although this is something Iran would be unable to do since there is a mutual understanding between Russia and Iran around their respective roles in Syria.
To put it simply, the nature of Russian participation to the summit means that serious negotiations leading to a solution on the Syrian issue cannot be expected.
A Platform for Intense Diplomatic Talks
Beyond the Syrian matter, the chances of a parallel Iranian-Saudi meeting taking place during the Baghdad summit are promising. Considering that the differences between both countries are profound, the summit could be an opportunity for them to meet on neutral ground and discuss their disagreements on regional issues, such as the war in Yemen. It would be the first public meeting between the two sides after three secret rounds of dialogue sponsored by the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi since April. The private talks were motivated by the election of President Joe Biden, which compelled Saudi Arabia to ease regional tensions through a number of diplomatic gestures.
The discussions were halted due to the transitional period that Iran experienced with the election of President Ibrahim Raisi in June. Still, many observers hope that these meetings – whose regularity is a positive indication of their seriousness – will help in the quest for solutions to regional crises in which the two sides are important players, especially in Yemen and possibly Lebanon. Furthermore, reducing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran would have a favorable effect on the political discord and instability in Iraq.
The Baghdad summit will constitute an opportunity for an American-Iranian meeting outside of the Vienna talks.
The Baghdad summit will also constitute an opportunity for an American-Iranian meeting outside of the Vienna talks and the first since the ultra-conservative President Raisi came to power. Such talks could constitute a pathway for a return to the nuclear agreement and the lifting of American sanctions on the maimed Iranian economy.
In addition, hopes are high for a meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al Sisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This gathering will be the first encounter since the two countries began a conciliatory path last year. Egyptian-Turkish relations had taken a sharp plunge following Turkey’s refusal in 2013 to recognize the coup carried out by the military against former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.
Likewise, this meeting represents a key moment during which Qatari, Saudi, and Emirati leaders gather for the first time since the lifting of the embargo against Doha at the beginning of this year. The blockade was imposed in 2017 by the UAE and Saudi Arabia – along with Egypt and Bahrain – leading to the more than three-year-long Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis.
It is worth mentioning that Iraqi officials also hope to hold meetings with Turkish and Iranian delegations to discuss the water file, as Turkish and Iranian dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers threaten the water security of Mesopotamia, according to Baghdad.
What Does Iraq Hope to Achieve?
The Iraqi government, headed by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, wants to restore Baghdad’s regional role as a mediator by adopting a policy of positive neutrality towards the conflicting parties. It seeks to push towards regional stability with the hope that it will subsequently ensure internal stability. Indeed, Iraqi parties and factions are loyal to their regional sponsors, which leads to local and regional tensions imported into Iraq.
Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi’s term ends within two months. The country is heading towards early parliamentary elections that should result in the formation of a new government. Al-Kadhimi believes that his reappointment as Prime Minister cannot take place without the approval of the regional powers, whatever the outcome of the elections may be. Thus, he is trying to market himself as an essential bridge between warring sides in the Middle East.
Iraq seeks to launch an electrical interconnection project with Egypt and Jordan, in light of its current power shortage crisis.
Moreover, Al-Kadhimi seeks to attract investments from Qatar and the UAE, especially in the areas that were most affected by the war against the Islamic State. For example, the Iraqi government seeks to launch an electrical interconnection project with Egypt and Jordan, in light of its current power shortage crisis and the resulting popular anger. Gulf investments could mean an improvement in the nation’s economic situation, to appease the Iraqi protesters, who are still very active even though COVID-19 has limited their ability to organize major demonstrations.
Therefore, the Baghdad summit is a regional necessity, allowing powerful states to discuss pertinent issues around the same table—though no one should expect a substantial breakthrough from this event. Still, in the current circumstances, Baghdad seems to be the best place to start such a path, not only because of its central geographical location, but also because it constitutes one of the most important battlefields between regional players.